Oral History Projects Document Hurricane Sandy
Jennifer Reut, October 2013
The first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy (or Super Storm Sandy, as it is known in New Jersey) striking the MidAtlantic is October 29, 2013, and a number of oral history projects have emerged to begin to collect and document the storm's effect on the coastal communities of New York and New Jersey.
Oral history projects have sprung up around the regions hit hardest by Sandy, many of them sponsored by local universities and libraries. Hurricane Sandy: Record, Remember, Rebuild is an online collaboration between Google, the Metropolitan New York Library Council, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Association for State and Local History. Using the Historypin interface, users can pin images from Sandy directly to the map and upload audio, video, and text to accompany them. Over 400 items have been contributed to the project thus far.
The Brooklyn Public Library has initiated an oral history project to document the effect of Sandy on the borough, as part of its existing Brooklyn Collection. All materials will be available to the public for research and select recordings will be posted on a Hurricane Sandy website at a later date. At Hofstra University on Long Island, an oral history project centered on Long Beach, a barrier island along Long Island's South Shore, will collect video interviews of residents' stories. The School of Social Work at nearby Adelphi University has launched When the Personal and Professional Collide: Eyewitnesses to Services after Hurricane Sandy. This project intends to document the experiences of the School of Social Work community as users and recipients of services in the aftermath of Sandy.
That spring, Perkiss designed her upper-level undergraduate seminar around teaching her students oral history methods while also undertaking a long-term research project. The focus on Sandy was immediately relevant to her students, many of whom had experienced the loss of home and community first hand. Perkiss and her students chose the areas, defined their themes, and studied the Oral History Association best practices before beginning work in the field.
"The scope of questions that we're asking was also very much informed by my own personal experience in New Orleans, in the wake of Katrina," noted Perkiss, who has worked with communities in the Gentilly District. Perkiss said that her background in sociology and documentary filmmaking also informed the project, and that "we try to situate the story of Sandy within the broader history of the relationship between natural disasters and the communities they impact.
"Focusing on the Bayshore area of New Jersey, the class selected three economically diverse seaside communities to study. The class blog documents not just the product of this class, but its process, and the depth of emotions that the students experienced and encountered at the various community meetings and in the interviews themselves. The blog also has photographs and videos of the storm's damage shot by the students, including damage done to their own homes and neighborhoods. Transcripts from the interviews will be housed in three regional repositories for use by the public.
In April, the class presented at the OHMAR conference in College Park, Maryland, and students wrote candidly about the difficulty in balancing their own emotional response to the trauma with their purpose of communicating professionally about their project. Others were excited to be presenting their original research at an academic conference among experts, a first for many, if not all, the undergraduates.
In October, Perkiss is taking her students to Oklahoma City for the national Oral History Association's annual meeting, where they will take part in a roundtable about the project. Perkiss hopes that Staring out to Sea, which was intended to be a two-year longitudinal study, will be able to secure funding to implement the next stage, which will include an online digital library to host all of the audio, video, and transcripts from the interviews.
-Jennifer Reut is the associate editor of Perspectives on History.A version of this article appeared on the AHA Today blog.
"The project began with a conversation between me and Dr. Katherine Scott, assistant historian, US Senate, and vice president of the Oral History Association in the Mid-Atlantic Region. OHMAR was interested in working with an oral historian in northern New Jersey to document the experience of Sandy, and Kean University, located in Union, NJ, was hit quite hard by the storm..."Our plan is to create an online digital library, to go live at the two-year anniversary of the storm, with audio and visual material from the interviews and interviewees as well as the transcripts of all interviews. The transcripts will also be housed at a number of repositories in New Jersey, including Kean University's Center for History, Politics, and Policy, the Tuckerton Seaport Museum, the NJ State Archives, and the Rutgers Oral History Archives."-Abigail Perkiss, Kean University